Fairways to heaven: Five of Ireland's best golf courses
Having completed a 14-month golfing odyssey around Ireland and written a book on the subject, Kevin Markham reveals five of the hidden gems he discovered on his travels.
That old forty shades of green adage may have been worn to the bone, but when discussion turns to Ireland's golf courses, it remains beautifully apt. We boast almost 350 18-hole golf courses on this island, many of them ranked among the world's best.
Some sit tucked up in suburbia, some bask in Ireland's most beautiful scenery, while others glide through woodlands and over gentle countryside. There is so much choice that every golfer should venture beyond their home club and the comfort zone they know so well.
Travel brings its own rewards. It is something I discovered first hand when I packed up a camper van and drove around Ireland for 14 months. I played every one of those 18-hole courses and it was a revelation.
Whatever kind of golfer you are, I can assure you there is a slice of heaven out there, waiting for you. From the cliffs of Old Head to the lakeland beauty of Concra Wood and Lough Erne; from the monstrous dunes of Carne and Enniscrone to the unheralded intrigue of Scrabo, Royal Curragh and Portumna, there is no excuse not to start your own adventure.
Here are five of Ireland's best golfing experiences to put on your itinerary.
Carne Golf Links, Belmullet, Co Mayo
The raw beauty of Carne Golf Club is reflected in the landscape and the drive to reach it. This northwestern outpost of County Mayo feels endless and untamed. Once you're playing through dunes that rise 150 metres above sea level, you'll understand exactly what that means.
Belmullet balances on the edge of the Atlantic, with views to the east spilling over Blacksod Bay and across the Nephin Beg mountains. To the west lie dark rocks and islands, rising from the sea. Beyond that, America. You won't find fresher air anywhere.
The golf course was created thanks to the passion of a local community that saw the benefits tourism would bring. They weren't wrong, and Carne is now one of the world's must-play links golf courses.
There are 27 holes here, rising and falling through some of the most dramatic dunes on earth. There is nothing complicated to it – neither Eddie Hackett (original 18) nor Ally McIntosh (new 9) saw the need for over-designing what was already a majestic location for a golf links – but it is as inspiring as any golf course could be.
This corner of the world also boasts the brilliant links of Enniscrone, Rosses Point and Strandhill.
Carlow Golf Club
It doesn't get the plaudits of Ireland's most acclaimed parklands, such as Adare and Druid's Glen, but Carlow has a grace and class that dates back to a previous era. Those in the know are well aware of Carlow's reputation.
This is old school, set on the rolling landscape a few miles outside Carlow town. The club was founded in 1899, but, since it was redesigned in 1937, the course has remained almost untouched. Why meddle with brilliance?
Carlow flows over 250 acres of gentle wooded hillsides that were once a deer park. It is so natural that it's hard to see where the landscape ends and the course begins.
This is a pretty course that has a wide variety of holes. No two are alike and, with the constant changes in direction, the challenges you face are just as varied.
Several holes are heralded for their brilliance, using the natural slopes and trees to present dramatic drives and approaches. Holes 7 and 16 are two of the toughest and the best. They have just one bunker between them.
This is a course that has stayed true to its roots and is all the more impressive for it. Recommended courses nearby include Bunclody, Gowran Park, Mount Wolseley and Rathsallagh. See carlowgolfclub.ie
Little Island, Cork
Many great courses deserve to be on this list – Adare, Druid's Glen, Ballybunion and Royal County Down, to name a few – but Cork fully deserves its spot.
This revered old club has implemented a hugely successful four-year renovation programme, that has taken the course to a new level. Designed by Alister MacKenzie, the recent upgrades have been aimed at returning the course to its heathland roots.
The most telling change has been the new bunkering. The shapes and prominence have brought tremendous character to holes, and added considerable challenges.
Little Island, as the course is also known, sits on the edge of Lough Mahon, just east of Cork city. It is renowned for the unique run of holes that play through an old limestone quarry but, with the new bunkering, every hole bristles with a new confidence.
This is a searching test of golf and the greens can be particularly mischievous.
One challenge you won't need to contend with is a Spanish Chestnut, 363 yards from the 11th tee box. This is where Seve Ballesteros landed his wayward drive in 1983. The club planted the tree to commemorate the occasion.
Cork Golf Club sits alongside the five-star Fota Island Resort. See corkgolfclub.ie
Scrabo Golf Club, Newtownards, Co Down
One of the island's greatest golfing adventures is a course most Irish golfers have never encountered. Scrabo Golf Club sits at the head of Strangford Lough, high on a hill where Scrabo Tower dominates the skyline.
For a hillside course, this is as erratic a landscape as you will find, with scenery all around and views across to Scotland and the Isle of Man.
The club dates back to 1907, and the gorse is so dense and razor sharp that it might have been here just as long. The rocky outcrops certainly have and they punch through the fairways from time to time to add drama to an already dramatic course. The nature of the terrain did most of the designer's work, and it emphasises how nature can play host to the best golf experiences. It's not glamorous or manicured, and it doesn't need to be.
The shape of the landscape is epitomised by the opening hole, which heads straight up to Scrabo Tower. It's magnificent, but this is a round that promises intimidating and thrill-ing shots on every hole, as well as a few oddities that might leave you scratching your head ... if with a smile on your face. See scrabogolfclub.com
The Island, Donabate, Dublin
The spectacular setting of links courses is a major attraction for visiting golfers. Waterville, Dooks, Rosses Point, Narin & Portnoo and Tralee are the best you'll find, but despite being so close to Dublin city, The Island has beauty all around it. Ireland's Eye, Lambay Island and Howth are constant distractions.
The Island Golf Club dates back to 1890. It is often over-shadowed by nearby Portmarnock, yet there are more muscular dunes here and more drama. The layout takes you in every direction and the par fours vary dramatically, both in length and shape.
What sets The Island apart is the intrigue of the shots you face; they tease you in so many ways. The short par four 14th has the narrowest fairway in Ireland, while the 13th is one of the island's toughest par threes.
These two holes are particularly noteworthy as they give a clue to the club's name. Until 1973, the course could only be reached by boat and the original clubhouse was set to the right of the 14th tee box. The stone foundation and steps remain.
The Island hosts the British Open qualifying and the Irish Interpros this year. That says something about the quality you can expect. See theislandgolfclub.com
'Driving the Green – An Irish Golfing Adventure' by Kevin Markham is published by The Collins Press, price €12.99. It is available in all good bookshops and online from collinspress.ie